The Syrian maelstrom continues to be a battleground for bitter regional rivalries and the brutal battle between Bashar al-Asad's loyalists and the remaining insurgents fighting for survival across the country. Despite slipping from the front-pages, Syria remains a savage war. Crisis Group has listed the conflict as one of the more important conflicts to watch in the world during 2018, and for many reasons, President Al-Asad's confrontation with the various rebel groups should remain a concern to policymakers and the international community.
Syria remains a war-zone. 4.5 million people remain hard to reach because of vicious fighting and insecurity while 35 per cent are now estimated to be in poverty as a result of war. Economic collapse, low-level violence, exposure to extreme weather conditions, an increase in food prices, disease, lack of medical facilities, unemployment and continued displacement continues to threaten Syrian IDPs and refugees into 2018 has left 6.5 million men, women and children desperate for or dependent on food assistance from the humanitarian sector. In Lebanon, fifteen refugees were found frozen to death as they attempted to cross the snowy Lebanese mountains in the winter. Most of them were children. Siege Watch - a joint initiative of PAX and The Syria Institute, reported that an estimated 744,860 people remain trapped in at-least 33 besieged communities across the country and more than 1 million Syrians lived under threat of intensified siege.
The local and regional dynamics of the conflict continues to constantly change. American and Saudi support for the Syrian opposition has dwindled as the unified front of Russia, Iran, Hizbullah and the Syrian Army has smashed the divided Syrian opposition and its different armed groups. The lack of cohesion amongst the hundreds of rebel groups - let alone the inability of Washington's regional allies to form a common front due to conflicting and often contradictory agendas - has gravely undermined the hopes of successive American administrations that President Al-Asad would depart from power - peacefully or violently.
As a consequence, the war has drawn out into seven years of bloodshed, lasting longer than both the First and Second World Wars, and nearly as long as the Iran-Iraq War which scarred the region in the 1980s. The Obama administration had an opportunity to strike after the chemical attacks in Ghouta and sought approval to bomb the Syrian regime, only to to stall in the face of opposition at home and abroad, as important allies faced public and political opposition in striking at President Al-Asad. In London, the House of Commons voted against military intervention in Syria and while proposals were considered to authorise the use of military forces, votes on the resolution were postponed indefinitely amid opposition from numerous legislators. The American people were in no mood for another foreign war. President Al-Asad's forces continued bombing and besieging cities and towns, and Al-Qa'ida and Daesh grew in strength as the civil war gathered pace in 2013.
Daesh's capture of Mosul in 2013-2014 and its subsequent atrocities against Western aid workers and journalists eventually convinced international policymakers that the terrorist group had to be dealt with in both Syria and Iraq to destroy its military power and its capacity to launch stunning and bloody attacks in cities and towns across the world. An international coalition assembled by President Obama, bombed Daesh out of the cities it occupied and shielded allied forces such as the Kurds on the ground while special forces and drones hunted down Daesh key emirs and its regional and local commanders.
Despite major defeats, Daesh, ideologically, remains a threat. For example in 2017, the United Kingdom was hit by three attacks in a matter of months at Westminster, London Bridge and the Manchester Arena in the north while places such as the Egypt's Sinai and Afghanistan, suicide bombings claimed by the organisation devastate communities and target embassies, transport, mosques and marketplaces. Daesh's ability to radicalise men, women and children over the Internet is well-known, and much like Al-Qa'ida, the war of heart and minds is a much more difficult conflict to fight than the practical needs to confront the group in the Middle East. Tragically, its attacks and the media attention it attracts also bring out some venomous rhetoric from far-right and anti-immigrant groups and parties including racism and Islamophobia, even anti-Semitism. At worst, individuals have taken matters into their own hands and killed innocent Muslim men, women and children and physically desecrated religious sites. This has fomented divisions within societies, particular Europe and Russia whose geographic location is situated much closer to the region and is more historically entwined with the Middle East and North Africa's regional affairs at a cultural, economic and political level.
The American presence is now limited to two thousand soldiers in eastern Syria and airpower (primarily utilised to knock out Daesh's army). Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted this week that their presence will be open-ended, primarily to deter the restrengthening of the extremist group, Daesh, mop up their remaining forces and assassinate the organisation's remaining leaders using special forces, airstrikes and drones. However, it is also to blunt Iranian gains since the Syrian and Iraqi wars ignited and since Daesh rose from the bloodshed which Tehran used as an opportunity both to strengthen the power of its militias which have existed in Iraq since the costly U.S invasion, but also to consolidate the power of President Al-Asad. "A total withdrawal of US personnel at this time would restore Assad and continue his brutal treatment of his own people...disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position."
Two thousand soldiers, plus an estimated five thousand stationed in Iraq, cannot control a major city, let alone win a major military conflict. However, it is an effective deterrent for cross-border activity between Daesh insurgents and elements of Al-Qa'ida looking to reestablish themselves in the sparse, poverty stricken areas of eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. It will not, however, end conflict nor will it bring stability which Mr. Tillerson outlined in his Stanford speech. The next phase after the defeat of Daesh, inevitably, brings other conflicts into greater focus. American relations with its NATO ally, Turkey and its government led by bullish Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in no mood to cooperate with the Kurds - key allies of the Obama and Trump administration's in the fight against Daesh.
In January, 2018, seventy-two jets were reported to be have begun bombing YPG and SDF positions in Afrin in northern-western Syria, what many believe to be the beginning of a major military incursion dubbed Operation Olive Branch. Supported by U.S airpower the YPG played a key role in the siege of Kobane and made key gains against Daesh in Al-Hasakah and Tell Abyad in spring and summer of 2015 and at Raqqa in 2017. However its attempted extension into Aleppo's province made the Turkish government uncomfortable. If a Kurdish state exists from Ankara's perspective, the Turkish state is endangered. The invasion of Syria in 2016, Turkish authorities argue, prevents the YPG in north-east Syria from attempting to link up with the YPG's political wing (The Democratic Union Party), officials and groups in north-west Syria and unify along the Turkey southern border. The Turkish offensive in Sarasset, Amareh and Jab al-Kousa and along the Jerabulus-Manbij corridor succeeded in putting the Kurds and Daesh on the defensive.
Like Operation Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch undermines American objectives in northern Syria. Driving the YPG and SDF further and further east of the Euphrates and shattering its power in Afrin will blunt the the Kurds ambition to carve out territory along the Turkish-Syrian border and curb the spread of the revolution in Rojova. Wedded to the collapse of the Kurdish forces at Kirkuk after an ill-timed referendum and a swift intervention by Iraqi forces (supported by a Turkish blockade), the Kurdish people could see their hopes for an independent state extinguished in just over three months. Their allies, the United States, have done little to support them.
"The fall of Kirkuk exposed the schism between Erbil and Baghdad, but also between Kurdistan’s two major political blocs – Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Each controls its own Peshmerga units and it was the PUK’s that initially withdrew from the city after making an agreement with Abadi. The Kurdish groups quickly turned on each other, with mutual accusations of graft and treason that further undermined the region’s weakened position. Independence now appears impossible, to the relief of neighbouring Iran and Turkey, long anxious about their own restive Kurdish populations."
The current crisis in north-eastern Syria could drive an estimated one million people from their homes and 'with a divided leadership, no allies abroad and without a military option, the Kurds are losing the semi-independent status they had built up since Saddam Hussein was defeated in the Gulf War in 1991 and Iraqi government forces withdrew from the three Kurdish provinces.' The opportunity in Syria could slip through the fingers of Kurdish political and military factions for now. For the Russians and Syrian regime, the blow to the Kurdish movements suit their interests. President Al-Asad will not want his country to be federalised or partitioned by the United Nations and the West nor will he want to give autonomy to the Syrian Kurds. Equally, regional powers Turkey and Iran will not allow the Kurds to lay the groundwork for a future state if it hopes (in theory) to quell its dissident Kurdish populations within their own borders.
The Iraqi military - supported local and Iranian militias - demonstrated, quite surprisingly, how simple the task was when it swiftly dislodged Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Kirkuk last year. The Russians - stating non-interference in the Turkey-Kurdish conflict - will not be sorry to see their rivals in the region, the Americans, get embarrassed once again in Syria as its long-standing NATO ally delivers a powerful blow to its main allies in the fight against Daesh.
Will this trouble President Trump's administration? The focus on the North Korean crisis and renewed troubles in Ukraine, wars in Yemen and Afghanistan, the horrendous immigration/refugee crisis in Central America and Myanmar and other global hotspots (not to mention grappling with scandal upon scandal in the White House) may indicate not. As in Afghanistan, Donald Trump has explicitly stated that state-building is no longer an objective in foreign policy. Counter-terrorism by drone strikes, covert operations and utilising proxy forces to hunt down enemies which are a threat to Western security is the preferable option. This can be stated clearly in his speech on Afghanistan in August, 2017.
"In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten our country....Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists. We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over."
Simply put, Washington have bigger priorities in global affairs at the moment and counter-terrorsim efforts will trump re-building countries, promoting human rights and democracy and upending dictatorships. The Kurdish peshmerga were wielded to effect against Daesh, however Western-led state-building for the Kurds in a war-zone in Syria would not be realistic, particularly when the aspiring state in question threatens the territorial interests of both ally (Turkey & Iraq) and foe (Syria). The Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG have outlived their political and military usefulness to the superpowers and as demonstrated at Kirkuk, the peshmerga are no match for the combined might of the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish armies without American-led airpower. It is a morally repugnant betrayal and hundreds of thousands of civilians will suffer for it. Yet, the stage was set for conflict between both the Kurds and its short-term allies who were united only by their hatred of Daesh. Arming all the sides with ever more weapons and turning the Middle East into an ammunition dump made an asymmetrical conflict inevitable between state and non-state actors across the Middle East.
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For President Al-Asad and his allies, the battle for Syria has rolled on. Victory in Aleppo brought a ceasefire, as agreed by Iran, Russia, Turkey, however despite the cessation of major conflict, low-level violence broke out in provinces across the country and major terrorist attacks continued unabated. In the stricken western districts of Aleppo, the siege was over but the horrific bouts of violence were not over. The suicide bombing in the al-Rashideen neighbourhood was a tragic day. On April 14, convoy carrying 5,000 people including civilians and several hundred pro-government fighters, who were granted safe passage out of the two Shia villages which were besieged by rebels was targeted by a suicide car bomb. It was a scene of utter carnage. Bodies were charred and others were gutted by the blast. Personal belongings were strewn across the area and fire and smoke billowed from a number of vehicles as rescuers struggled to put them out. 126 were killed in the blast with over eighty children were amongst the dead, more than the total killed in the chemical attacks less than two weeks earlier. A month earlier, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Daesh launched three suicide attack on March 11 and March 15, killing 114 civilians, the majority Shia pilgrims from Iraq while another massacre occurred on the Syrian border at Azaz, where Daesh bombed the rebel-held town. Over sixty were left dead and dozens more were wounded.
The Siege of Raqqa - Daesh's final stronghold before its fall in November - rolled on, spearheaded by Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG and Syrian forces, assisted by the Russians forced Daesh from Dayr Hafir, east of Aleppo as conflict between the insurgents and the Russia-backed Syrian army continued in the north and west. With momentum firmly with Al-Asad's coalition, Syrian army and its militias swept the countryside ejecting rebel fighters from villages and towns across the country with fighting also reported north of Hama. The recapturing of Aleppo was followed by a slow fight to eject Daesh fighters from Deir ez-Zor with critical support from the Russian air force and navy in September and recaptured Mayan and Abu Kamal, a city on the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq from the jihadists. This was a major success for Al-Asad, alongside driving Daesh from Palmyra, a city where its members gained notoriety for desecrating the Roman ruins and vandalised Syria's, if not humanity's, cultural heritage.
Earlier in August, Hizbullah and the Syrian army with the support of the Lebanese Armed Forces pushed Daesh and elements of Hayat Tahir al-Sham out of its final areas of control surrounding Ras Baalbek and in the Qalamoun mountain range. Daesh buckled under the three-pronged assault. Hundreds surrendered en-masse. The POWs and their families were subsequently transferred to Abu Kamal in buses. The Qalamoun offensive represented the first time the jihadist group publicly agreed to an evacuation deal (in Mosul, Daesh soldiers had fought to the death). “The return of Daesh militants in air-conditioned cars to their countries is permissible because Lebanon adheres to the philosophy of a state that does not exact revenge,” Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the Lebanese intelligence chief said in a radio interview. “We do not bargain. We are in the position of the victor and are imposing conditions."
The city closely watched by the outside world, however, is Idlib. The final major stronghold of the rebels, Idlib is home to a coalition of rebel factions, including jihadist soldiers, foreign fighters and remnants of the Free Syrian Army, and it is under heavy attack by the Syrian military. The city is in the grip of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham who are closely tied to Al-Qa'ida and Jabat Fatah al-Sham. HTS have been involved in numerous clashes with other extremist rebel cells including Nour al-Din al Zenki and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya for control of Idlib and the surrounding province.
In April, 2017, the Idlib province was at the heart of international shock and uproar as the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack killed over 58 people, including 11 children. President Trump, a few months into his presidency, was determined to set a precedent authorising the launching of Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat. The show of force would set him apart from Barack Obama as a decisive president in the Syrian War. The neoconservatives nauseously cheering Donald Trump on as American missiles lit up the night sky were to be disappointed. The missiles did little damage to the Syrian war machine killing seven soldiers and nine civilians and airstrikes in the country became more limited as the Russian pledged to strengthen Syrian air defences as outlined by Major General Igor Konashenkov. Konashenkov also stated that 'out of 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from the US Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean, only 23 hit the target.' The bullishness of the Trump administration on the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack has proven to be a symbolic act as supposed to a clear military policy on the Syrian crisis.
Infighting has served to weaken the rebels position, politically and militarily while conditions within Idlib have been grim for several years. In an interview with The Intercept, Ahmad Awad described the desperate situation Idlib and its civilians were in. "Comparing to the circumstances I went through in Madaya, I was very happy when I reached Idlib. But then I started to change my mind. It’s a crazy place here, it’s a mess, everybody is on his own, while we have tens of thousands of displaced families living in camps, and nobody is taking care of them," he stated grimly. Under the hegemony of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, life for civil activists and civilians has been nightmarish with the jihadist group imposing sharia law, much like Daesh in Raqqa and Mosul. “After the recent infighting by HTS, the situation is very frightening. The people are afraid of ending up as another Mosul,” said Syrian activist Housam Mahmoud in August, 2017. Mosul, as with Aleppo, Raqqa, Fallujah, Hama, Homs, Tikrit, Ramadi and beyond have been levelled by brutal combat in the streets and bloody house-to-house fighting. The Syrians dwelling within the city will likely flee to Turkey to escape the intra-jihadist feuds, sky-rocketing crime, poverty and Syrian soldiers and militia.
The renewed offensive on Idlib, the first of 2018, under the Syrian commander, General Hassan Suhel has sparked an exodus from Idlib and the surrounding area as President Al-Asad's government and its Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies seek to secure their relevant positions across the country. The Syrian assault force has recaptured Abu Duhur airport from jihadists and advanced along the road connecting Hama and Aleppo, linking up with militia units near Herbet al Ghajar and Rasm al Harma, thus completing the encirclement of a large group of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters in the southeastern areas of the Idlib province. They have also recently recaptured Surouj and Istablat which has exchanged hands between loyalists and rebels in early January.
Damascus, the centre of power for the Al-Asad dynasty is enduring, but plagued by problems. East Ghouta remains in terrible condition. Ghouta has been under siege since 2013 and its estimated 420,000 inhabitants are suffering severe shortages of food and medicine. In the last two weeks of January, 193 people have been killed by regime airstrikes and artillery and the suburb has been subject to murderous Russian and Syrian raids and a devastating chemical attack in August, 2013. Food has been used as a weapon of war. Malnutrition and hunger has been rife. With 107 doctors for the enormous numbers suffering, the situation is bleak for the men, women and children in Ghouta.
'The closure of al-Wafideen led prices of basic goods like seeds, grain and sugar to skyrocket to some of the highest prices ever recorded in Eastern Ghouta. At one point prices for bread in Duma were recorded as high as 48 times the price in Damascus nearby.'
"We are living in nightmare here in Ghouta," said Nour Adam, a Syrian activist who lives in Ghouta. "Due to the lack of food and the rising prices, we start to see many cases of malnutrition, among kids and babies. I know families living on one meal a day," commented Dr Baker Abu Ibrahim. The harrowing image of Sahar Dofdaa, a one-month-old baby with sunken eyes and her ribs sharply defined, exemplified the starvation occurring inside Ghouta. Man-made starvation has already occurred in cities, towns and villages under siege by the regime including Idlib, Homs, Aleppo, Madaya, Yarmouk, Daraya, Qudsayya, Hameh and beyond. Sahar was being treated for malnutrition by a doctor in the town of Hamouria, in the eastern Ghouta region before she died on October 22, 2017. Siege conditions and violence have intensified while two suspected chemical attacks were recorded between August-October 2017 in Eastern Ghouta and the Southern Damascus suburbs. The presence of rebel factions fighting for power in Ghouta and Jobar including Hayet Tahir al-Sham have contributed to civilian suffering, and much like Idlib seen the taking over and targeting of civil institutions.
According to Siege Watch, Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, rebel groups, have cracked down on civil society, suppressed media and caused problems for humanitarians operating there, assaulting staff and vandalising offices such as the Violations Documentation Centre. Skirmishes have occurred between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman. On Boxing Day, 2017, critically ill patients were evacuated from the enclave of eastern Ghouta, however thousands remain trapped. In January, 2018, conditions remain dire. "We are working hard to evacuate others from Eastern Ghouta to medical institutions," Major-General Yuri Yevtushenko told reporters as the Russian military with the support of the Syrian Arab Crescent have continued to assist those needing immediate medical support. The suffering of Ghouta continues to this day with no end in sight.
The Syrian War has been a savage, unbearable war. It bears all the hallmarks of the worst civil wars where inhumanity has reigned and most sides involved have targeted civilians, committed war crimes and crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing. Food has been used as a weapon of war, chemical weapons have been deployed by multiple sides with impunity, Sunni, Shia and Alawite militias have cleansed villages, towns and city districts, and nearly half of the country's population has been displaced or forced to leave the country. Extremists have flourished in the country's descent into madness and in the chaos of Syria's collapse, Daesh was able to establish a self-declared sub-state and occupy an area the size of the United Kingdom for five years, if not more. The rise and fall of Daesh has been paralleled by the resurgence of its opponent Al-Qa'ida as well as other jihadist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham which used to operate on the fringes of Syrian society before the revolution began in 2011. Syrians face appalling choices, the rule of the Al-Asad regime or the suffocating control of the only military power which has the capacity to confront Al-Asad's dynasty: jihadists.
A reduction in the violence and an end to the war should be welcomed when it arrives, whoever the victor. However, it must be reiterated, no one has won this conflict. The price exacted from the Syrian people has simply been too high and the gains so few even for regional powers and global actors politically involved. President Al-Asad rules, yet his victory is an empty one, one which may not have been possible without the intervention of Russia, Iran and Hizbullah. If a fresh wave of IDPs and refugees, a renewed Kurdish war, multiple sieges across the country, continued suicide bombings and attacks on civilians in Ghouta and Idlib represent stability, one shudders at what peace time could look like in parts of Syria for generations to come.
Matthew C.K Williams